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How to choose the right pair of headphones

How to choose the right pair of headphones
(Image credit: Focal)

It’s easy to assume headphones aren’t as important an investment as a new amp or a pair of speakers. But when it comes to picking the right pair of headphones, scrolling through a few deals and skimming a couple of reviews just won't cut it.

Even if you're on a tight budget, it's best to arm yourself with some expert knowledge rather than leave it to chance. To help speed things up, here's What Hi-Fi's expert guide to choosing the right pair of headphones. 

Whether you're spending peanuts or a small fortune, this enlightening step-by-step guide should help you get the most for your money. Here's how we'd go about buying new cans...

Budget day

How to choose the right pair of headphones

First, you’ll need to set your budget – and this really should take longer than a momentary glance at your bank balance. You can begin by using the primary component in your system to guide you – music.

If you’re streaming lossy but compact files such as MP3s, for example, there’s no point in chucking heaps of cash at a pair of headphones that will be at best underworked, and at worst shine a light directly on the deficiencies in your source. Likewise, don’t expect a pair of entry-level cans to faithfully contour the talents of your extensive and expansive home system and collection of WAV and DSD hi-res files. 

All of which leads us on to the question of type. As you’ll doubtless already know (and we're bypassing the issue of whether you want the wire that attaches your listening gear to your device for a minute) headphones come in three main types: in-ear, on-ear and over-ear.

The choice comes down largely to preference – there are plenty of over-ear headphones light and tidy enough to wear on your morning commute, and opting for in-ear headphones does not necessarily mean a drop in sound quality.

Cutting to the chase, for a decent pair of wired in-ears, we'd recommend the SoundMagic E11C (£50), Klipsch T5M Wired (£70) or, if your budget allows, the Shure SE425 (£175). Then again, if you simply want the best in-ears around and hang the cost, there's the excellent Shure KSE1200 (£1,749) too.

How to choose the right pair of headphones

(Image credit: Shure)

Reverting to type 

Next, let's think about where you’ll be using your headphones. If they’re solely for home use, do they need to be all-but-invisible and inaudible to the outside world? While perhaps not ideal for the train or bus (because fellow passengers will also hear your tracks, and maybe you're best off keeping some playlists private) if sound leakage isn’t an issue, picking on-ears or over-ears with open backs could deliver a more expansive sound. 

Here, why not consider the AKG K92? For a higher-end option, the Grado SR325e may also be worth a look, as well as the Beyerdynamic T1 if your system is up to it. 

Or, if you want to block out the world, there are throngs of great-sounding, noise-cancelling headphones (including many wireless options) that will counteract the hum of an aeroplane, such as the AKG N60NC Wireless and Sony WH-1000XM3. We'd also like to put in a good word for the great-sounding Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless.

On the theme of wireless-ness, a relatively new collection of true wireless in-ears (those that don't have wires connecting the two buds) such as the Sony WF-1000XM3, Cambridge Audio Melomania 1 or Bose SoundSport Free will offer even more wireless freedom.

Most of these involve Bluetooth, and are rising in popularity thanks to smartphone brands who've ditched the trusty 3.5mm audio input – and because, if they fit well, it's nicer to go on a run without that wire jangling around your neck and potentially upsetting your stride. If you'll be listening to music on your smartphone while you run, that could well dictate the headphones route – wired or wireless – you take.

It's also worth noting here though: you’ll be spending considerably more for wireless headphones to match the sonic performance of their wired equivalent.

Sitting comfortably

How to choose the right pair of headphones

It’s now time to consider comfort. When you’re test-driving a pair of headphones, try to think not only about how they sound, but how they feel: do your ears get really warm after half an hour, or does the inadequately padded band give you a headache? If you're going for true wireless, can you get a good seal to ensure a solid sound performance (and avoid one or both falling out when you turn your head sharply)? 

If you’re going to wear them every day, there’s little point in torturing yourself. Try one of our recommended pairs of on-ears, such as the AKG Y50 (pictured above) instead.

At the more expensive end of the scale, consider the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Over-ears which we've described as "portable, desirable and blessed with brilliant sound." At the very top end, we'll just leave the excellent Focal Stellia closed-back headphones with you, too...

Sound is king, of course, but aesthetics must also be considered. You should want to plug your headphones in and listen as soon as you cast your eye upon them. Ferrari red might make a pair of cans stand out in the shop, but will you feel self-conscious wearing them into the office?

Conversely, are you less likely to be enthused about your music if your cans look like they were designed by a funeral director? It's all about finding the middle ground between fashion accessory and sartorial embarrassment.

How to choose the right pair of headphones

A healthy dose of nihilism is often a great way of safeguarding against future woe and inevitable disappointment, but you probably shouldn’t live entirely in the now during this particular journey.

If you’re planning to upgrade your system over time, either with different sources or a standalone headphone amplifier or DAC, the headphones you’re purchasing now should ideally have the sonic stretch to reveal those improvements.

Or, more immediately pertinent, are there replaceable parts such as pads, tips or cables, for comfort or in case of damage? It’s always worth a little forethought.

Shop around

How to choose the right pair of headphones

The easiest way to trial a wide range of headphones? Going to 'a shop' (it's basically a tangible version of the internet). You’ll go in better informed and with a more streamlined shortlist by reading our reviews, of course, but always be open to alternatives. 

A good dealer knows his products, and might stock something better suited to your needs you’d not yet considered. Remember, the dealer is there to help you, but you’re the one spending money – so you should be driving the sale.

As such, you should test with the music you’d usually listen to. You’ll know better how it ought to sound, and be able to make a more informed judgement of what you’re hearing. Take in a few CDs, records or your personal music player, and the dealer should be only too happy to let you play them.

It’s important, too, that you’re testing your potential buy with the gear you’ll be pairing it with at home or out and about. There’s no point choosing a pair of headphones based upon components you won’t be using – they’re likely to sound entirely different when you get them home.

If you suspect the shop won’t stock your gear, take it in with you – it will be worth the hassle once you’ve made the correct decision.

How to choose the right pair of headphones

As with most hi-fi equipment, headphones need to be run in. Sound changes over time as the components bed in (usually around 24 hours of continuous play will do the trick, but sometimes it can take longer), so make sure the pair you’re testing in store has had sufficient play.

Finally, as we often stress, don’t make your pick in a dealership then go home and scour for better deals online. In all likelihood, you won’t be saving much anyway.

If a dealer has helped you with a purchase, not only do they deserve the sale but you’ll want to keep that relationship strong for the next time you walk through the door.

Shop online

How to choose the right pair of headphones

(Image credit: Bowers & Wilkins)

If you don’t have easy access or enough time to visit a dealership, the internet can of course be a great place to shop. Especially around peak shopping days such as Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Many of the same rules apply: use our reviews to guide your search and be open to any alternatives you may happen upon. There are some great deals available, especially on older models.

Above all else, however, don’t buy anything you’ve not tried on and actually heard for yourself. Even if you’re struggling for a local dealership, find a nearby hi-fi show or ask your mates if you can try their headphones.

Reviews will help guide you away from absolute tripe, but regardless of how descriptive the article, reviews are merely an aid. You’ll never know exactly how a product sounds (or feels) until you’re using it yourself. Otherwise, you may as well just pick a name from a hat. 

If ever you’ve seen the television programme Rogue Traders, you’ll know not everybody plays fair – and it’s not just plumbers stealing your bone china. There are plenty of undesirables online as well.

Always make sure you’re buying from a trusted source (if you’re unsure, our online reviews are linked to a number of trustworthy retailers who stock the product) or else you could be left with knock-off gear with no chance of a return for the sake of a tenner.

Essentially, stay vigilant, just as you would when buying anything else from the web. Oh, and don't forget to check out our best headphones deals page for some superb bargains.

Running start

How to choose the right pair of headphones

Unlike a lot of hi-fi equipment, there isn’t a great deal of work to be done when you finally get your headphones home. You needn’t worry about positioning, stands or cables as with speakers, but don’t forget our earlier point about running-in.

Lift your headphones straight from the box and plug in, and you run the risk of mighty disappointment. Leave them running in overnight (we do this with every pair we test) and you’ll hear the sound that was the reason you bought them in the first place.


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  • Johan Bottema
    Just picked up some K702 headphones for £103. You cannot beat that with any other purchase, The AKG K701 / 702 / 712 remain legendary headphones. Rather that than anything else with NC, Wireless etc. Compared to my Hifiman HE400S and Philips X1 it is so much clearer and neutral. Deep bass without blurring the lines. Look at the old legends people .. modern Hphones still cannot compete.